Lawmakers in Washington are likely to miss a deadline set by US President Joe Biden to strike a deal on federal police reform legislation by Tuesday, the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
The lack of agreement underscores the challenges Democrats and the Biden administration face when it comes to finding common ground with Republican lawmakers on everything from infrastructure spending to racial justice. It also demonstrates the president’s difficulties in satisfying the more progressive elements within his own party.
Politicians have been wrangling over new federal laws to reform policing practices since Floyd was killed last May at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death set off worldwide protests against racial injustice and revived calls to crack down on police violence in America.
Biden used his first address to a joint session of Congress last month to urge lawmakers to strike a deal on federal legislation by May 25, one year since Floyd was killed.
“We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already,” Biden said at the time, referring to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which first passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives last summer.
The bill would ban police chokeholds, create a national registry to track police misconduct, make it simpler for prosecutors to seek criminal and civil penalties for police abuse, and ban “no-knock” warrants that allow police to forcibly enter properties.
The legislation has enjoyed widespread support from Democratic lawmakers but has been met with scepticism from many Republicans. They want to pare back the changes, in particular when it comes to qualified immunity, a legal principle that protects police from being held liable for actions they take on the job.
Given that Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest of margins, the bill will need the support of at least 10 Republican lawmakers in the upper chamber of Congress if it is to become law.
“We need to work together to find a consensus,” Biden said in his speech last month. “But let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers, led by Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, have for weeks been negotiating the details of a compromise. Karen Bass, the Democratic congresswoman from California, has also played an important role in the talks.
Booker told reporters on Capitol Hill last week that he was “trying to get this bill done, done right”. But he added: “I doubt it, highly doubt, we’ll have it done by Tuesday.”
His comments were echoed by Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, who said on Friday it was “unlikely” that a deal would be done by the anniversary of Floyd’s death.
She added, however, that the White House had “confidence” in the congressional negotiators.
“We have seen them convey publicly that they feel that the vibes are good, and they are continuing to make progress,” Psaki said.
Opinion polls show Americans are divided on police reform, with Democratic voters more likely to back sweeping changes than Republicans.
Morning Consult polling conducted shortly after Floyd’s murder found nearly four in five American adults said police violence against the public was “at least a somewhat serious problem”. That number dropped 10 points, however, in a subsequent poll conducted last month against the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who was found guilty over Floyd’s death.
Ninety per cent of Democrats said police violence was at least a somewhat serious problem in April, compared with 43 per cent of Republicans.
But Democratic lawmakers and activists are nevertheless split over what reforms are needed, with progressives agitating for the Biden administration to hold its ground on qualified immunity in particular — and raising the possibility that they could withdraw their support if they are dissatisfied with any compromise deal struck with Republicans.
Ayanna Pressley, the Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts, and Cori Bush, the Democratic congresswoman from Missouri, on Friday sent a letter to congressional leaders saying they were concerned “by recent discussions that the provision ending qualified immunity for local, state, and federal law enforcement may be removed in order to strike a bipartisan deal in the Senate”.
“Given that police violence, as a weapon of structural racism, continues to have devastating and deadly consequences for black and brown lives across our country, we strongly urge you to not only maintain but strengthen the provision eliminating qualified immunity as negotiations in the Senate continue,” they added. The letter was cosigned by another eight progressive lawmakers.
Their concerns were echoed by activists, including Trahern Crews, an organiser with Black Lives Matter Minnesota, who said the Biden administration needed to do more to deliver for black voters.
“Knowing that George Floyd and the energy around Black Lives Matter is what propelled the Biden administration to victory . . . there should have been policies pointed directly at the black community,” he said referring to the early months of the Biden administration.
“I think there is some good stuff in the George Floyd bill,” he added. “Not enough, but it’s a good start.”